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Monday, 30 March 2020

Freedom and democracy

What stops the young, fit and strong from stealing wealth and assets from the elderly, weak and infirm? Of course the very wealthy can afford to employ other young, fit and strong persons who will protect them just as long as their weekly wedge gives them more than killing their employer and taking their stuff. If you want to see just how this works in practice in a society devoid of law or justice, watch a few episodes of Narcos on Netflix. The drugs markets and the lawless societies in which the kingpins flourish are the true example of free markets - power, wealth, ruthlessness and inhumanity are the qualities favoured in this environment of accelerated evolution. A wholly free market would mean not only food and toilet paper but ICU beds, ventilators, vaccines and medical resources would accrue to the wealthiest or those with the biggest guns. So be careful what you wish for.

Research has shown consistently that when faced with great risk and great uncertainty, and with unknown outcomes, we humans will opt for a social safety-net model every time. We will vote for a minimum-provision-for-everyone model when none of us can be sure we will not require it ourselves. But we will also vote for the opportunity to better one's lot - whether that means keeping hens or retaining our existing store-cupboards and hoard of silver. And this model needs a functioning state that can exercise a greater power than any individuals, that can enforce law and justice and protect the weak and vulnerable. It doesn't have to be a big State, or an intrusive state, but it does have to be able to execute the collective will. Expressed through the secret ballot by universal suffrage and the right of free association.

Anyone here who really wants a wholly free market, take yourself off to Mexico or Colombia. Anyone here who really wants a socialist paradise, take yourself off to Venezuela. No? No takers? OK, so I guess we're just discussing where the floor should be in our social-democratic model, then, and the degree of freedom individuals can exercise under various condition of risk, threat and uncertainty.

That we're having to discuss such things for the first time in this new century is actually a good thing. That we've got the internet on which to do so makes this discussion different from the discussions we had in 1850 or 1917 or 1945. Excellent!


Nigel Sedgwick said...

Well, I was doing just fine with all that until Raedwald wrote: "OK, so I guess we're just discussing where the floor should be in our social-democratic model, ..."

My problem is his use of the term social democracy!

Surely pretty much the same is present in Classical Liberalism, as described at length (for example) in F. A. Hayek's "The Constitution of Liberty", first published 1960, which runs to 355 pages (plus another 143 of notes, appendices and index) in my paperback edition. So Hayek did consider a vast amount of detail.

The game is indeed to decide "how much" is done by government, but social democracy is surely only a modest part of the economic/political/societal spectrum - not the totality of the acceptable.

Look at this plot for the USA's proportion of GDP that is government spending. Around the Great Recession (say from 2009 to 2012) I wondered along the lines of: 'I hope we don't need to fight a World War very soon; it would be much less affordable starting from government spending of 40% rather than starting with the 20% of WW2'.

But now the USA needs to pay off the costs of a pandemic, starting with this sort of National Debt.

Best regards

Anonymous said...

We could probably absolve ourselves in the West of a great deal of debt by saying t China "Whistle for it, batstewers"

jim said...

Democracy is a poor system, but better than the other systems. There seems some sort of societal satisfaction curve that is a flattish maximum in social democratic systems and tails off under communism or despotism.

Just possibly there is some peak of satisfaction somewhere. A sort of politico-economic Nirvana. But I suspect it don't exist.

But a flattish maximum means there is plenty of room for piss takers on both the right and left and top and bottom of society to take their wedge without the collective goose hissing too much. There is a great deal of ruin in the world but it rubs along fairly well.

Keeping control of the piss takers seems a useful job. Page 1 Para 1 of my law book says "In the Common Law countries a trial is NOT an exercise designed to discover the truth". There are reasons why but mostly it is downhill from there on in.

Span Ows said...

Anon 10:33 ""Whistle for it, batstewers"

We'd all be OK if they did actual stew the bats first! ;-)

Raedwald, I spend half my time in Colombia and Mexico (well, I did until last week) plus lived the best part of a decade in Venezuela...they all have theri good points and are worth saving.

JPM said...

No shit, Sherlock!

It's called a Mixed Economy, and social democrats, including everyone from Derek Hatton to Peter Hitchens have been making the case for it for generations.

Stephen J said...

@Raedwald: "What stops the young, fit and strong from stealing wealth and assets from the elderly, weak and infirm?"

A good question which you have (in my newish view), come part way to answering within the condensed scope of a daily blog, with the following:

"And this model needs a functioning state that can exercise a greater power than any individuals, that can enforce law and justice and protect the weak and vulnerable. It doesn't have to be a big State, or an intrusive state, but it does have to be able to execute the collective will."

But then I have only come recently, following his death, an interest in the writings of Roger Scruton.

I think I mentioned a few months back that I had bought a tome of his called "England: An Elegy". I laboured through the first few chapters constantly hoping for a chapter break to arrive, so that I could get back to moaning online.

Mostly, it underlines my lack of a decent education, but the "lockdown" (however personally ill observed) has concentrated the mind, and from the chapter entitled "The English Law", I have been riveted to each page, hoping it it would never end. It is brilliantly written, extremely engaging, but best of all, it is filling in gaps in my knowledge, that my socialist education presumably deliberately skimmed over, preferring the dreary wittering of E.P. Thompson and E. Hobsbawm et. al..

Anyway, I haven't finished, but a couple of things have come to light, that I am mulling as I write (right?). Namely the importance to the English and the English based world of equity and trust, the things that until recently have been innate across the classes of our history, and brought into focus. The idea that we are merely custodians of the land, whilst we live, we toil away at our inheritances, however modest or grand with that concept innate, rather than learned. For instance, the shared belief in the conservatism of the early Labour and Trade Union movement, neither of which were about socialism, but rather about the generational aspiration of the northern toilers of industry, to escape the dreariness of the heavy industry that was their daily toil. The escape through clubs and "the little platoons"...

Anyway, I have a long way to go, hopefully I will survive the lurgy, which I seem to have been gestating for the last few days, hopefully I won’t require the services of “Our NHS”, I already have far too much experience of, due to my Crohn’s.

… He said as he sits writing this to the sound of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band's "greatest hits".


Timbotoo said...

Span Ows,
I spent most of my working life in North, i.e. USA and Mexico; Costa Rica and Venezuela. All definitely worth saving, but a job worthy of Hercules.

Bucko said...

Of course your example of a 'free' economic market for drugs is a free market based completely within another controlled market. The drug trade makes huge amounts of money, but also comes with huge dangers. It isn't really a good example of how people would behave within a true free market environment

Hong Kong came the closest to a true free market and correct me if I'm wrong, but they didn't all turn into warlords with a survival of the fittest ethic

Real free market economics have never been tried because it is not in the best interests of Government to do so and as you say, people will never vote for it, as they think it would just be too hard, compared to voting for big Government and free stuff

I have more confidence that a real free market would work just fine, given the chance, but unfortunately we will never be in a position to prove that right or wrong. At least not until will have evolved a lot more as a species

Anonymous said...

The internet/certain platforms appear(s) to be acting up, I will post this here as readers may not have seen this information.

Raedwald said...

Bucko - I suspect HK was just one of the outliers in the set of social democracies, and didn't really come close to being a free market.

For a start the government owns all the land, and uses lease income as a substitute for taxes raised on incomes elsewhere. The government still carries out public works, social welfare, health, education etc spending and enforces collective laws through police and courts. It's just that HK had a lower floor than say Sweden

Liberista said...

"What stops the young, fit and strong from stealing wealth and assets from the elderly, weak and infirm?"

but why, of course the government, Sir.
as everybody knows, the govenment does not tolerate any competition in the fields of theft and armed robbery.

with my best regards

Anonymous said...

How it was:

Throughout the Georgian period the political rights of ordinary men and women were extremely limited. Only those men with substantial property or wealth were entitled to vote – this amounted to around 200,000 individuals, which was only a tiny fraction of the population. Many Members of Parliament were elected to represent ‘rotten boroughs’ – these were boroughs in which just a handful of voters enjoyed totally disproportionate representation in Parliament. Many large towns such as Manchester, on the other hand, which were expanding quickly as a result of industrialisation, had no representation at Westminster at all until the passing of the first Reform Act in 1832.

Although the majority of the British population had no right to vote, the influence of public opinion was extremely strong. The will of the people was expressed in many different ways. The leading political factions of the period – the Whigs and the Tories – were endlessly bullied and ridiculed in print, for example, and, like today, reputations could rise and fall quickly according to public opinion. Most politicians were satirised mercilessly in cartoons by leading artists such as James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, and there was a huge market for political pamphlets, books, ballads and newspapers.

Political opinion was also expressed in a more direct manner. Rioting was a familiar feature of daily life in both towns and the countryside, and many people came to fear the power of the ‘mob’. Crowd action was particularly strong in London, where people regularly threw stones at the carriages of leading politicians or booed unpopular ministers. Crowds sometimes forced householders to light their windows in celebration of political or military victories, and massive mobs formed around their political heroes. In 1780, after the government had passed legislation giving more political rights to Catholics, thousands of people rioted for a week in London in protest. Catholics were attacked, and Catholic property smashed up. All of London’s major prisons were burnt to the ground, and the Bank of England came under attack. King George III was forced to call in the Army in order to restore order, and over 200 people were killed in the ensuing violence. The incident became known as the Gordon Riots.

A major question is why Britain did not experience a political revolution, similar to those which took place elsewhere in Europe. Rioting and protest against the Establishment was certainly serious in Britain in the late 1700s, but it never resulted in fundamental upheaval. An answer can perhaps be found in the fact that the relationships between different social classes were mainly stable. The working classes remained the backbone of the industrial revolution, and their rights and customs were usually recognised by those in power. By the 1790s many working-class protests were also channelled through more formal political organisations that proved highly effective in bringing about political change by peaceful means.


Bucko said...

Raedwald - Maybe so. The sad truth is, we'll always have Government

Stephen J said...

I suppose it really depends on which period of the history of HK one is using as a barometer, wouldn’t it?

Within the confines of the idea that it was more or less uninhabited by Chinese peeps until well after the English snagged it. Of course a few tribal fisherfolk plied their trade but it was probably pretty free of markets, and capitalism as we would know them.

After we brought the opium trade there, which attracted the market for silk and other local merchandise, and an awful lot of capital and drudgery, it was still not free It merely ensured the slavery of many people, mainly Chinese traders and addicts, all kept under tight control by the British (and Dutch) traders, who were the ones with the capital, and later under the British Empire, the armaments.

Cowperthwaite was a wholly different k of f though. There are records on the net of his huge drive to reduce the power and cost of government.

When interviewed after his retirement to St. Andrews, he said that his hardest job was ensuring that the ministers were kept lean, by starving them of people's hard earned, i.e. the usual channels, taxation, bonds and pocket picking money printing. By keeping them lean, by having to justify every penny.

Unfortunately for them, he spent much of his day at golf or cards or some such, so they had to get him after 10am and before 2pm, when wasn't on holiday in Scotchland.

Just about the only welfare provision he thought vital, was that every citizen, however lowly had a place to call home, where they could store their shit safely. It was not desirable accommodation, but it was a home, until one could stand on their own feet and move to something more salubrious. Of course the majority escaped quickly and to this day many Hong Kongers keep a bronze bust of him to worship. (Not really).

That was when HK morphed from being the place where everything was “Empire Made”, to a burgeoning financial utopia, of capitalist activity, with the lowest taxation on the planet. It accompanied a thirst for knowledge and order and thus a highly educated population.

It was possibly the nearest thing to a genuine free market, including Singapore, which began on its hugely successful path much later. And because of the various tribes, resulted in a much more powerful government structure, designed to KEEP ORDER.

Of course, since the CCP took over, it has gradually become infested with political and financial intrigue, which many wide boys have taken massive advantage of. They have prospered and the place has gradually gone to pot, which was seen recently building up into a war between young HK’ers, and those who require (their) form of order at the point of a gun, known and loved, not as free market capitalism, but globalist cronyism, where the only law is Mr. Martial’s, made up on the fly and at the point of a gun and a little red book.

jim said...

Round here the young fit and able do help themselves to your stuff. The key is not to have anything worth nicking.

John Rawls looks worth reading. Don't design a society you would not be prepared to live at the bottom of.

Then our prison/probation system looks a bit hypocritical, makes no real attempt to improve prisoners/miscreants and tolerates sink estates and lousy employment opportunities. Perhaps we should be hauling the Director of Education and the Director of Social Housing in front of the Magistrates and slapping a big fine on them along with the miscreants.

I suspect that doing nothing pushes pain downwards and saves spending any money or doing any thinking.

Span Ows said...

Steve..."How it was". And how it will be again...

So many questions too, anon re hydroxychloroquine apparently working well; PCR tests only showing 'coronavirus' not COVID-19, so positives will be always in the thousands, deaths as per "normal",

When the truth cmes out that rioting wll be again...

DJK said...

Sorry, this is rubbish.

You are confusing two things: the rule of law and a market economy. A truly free market requires the rule of law to enforce contracts. In an anarchy, like the drugs trade, contracts can be enforced or broken through violence. Because there is such a low level of trust, the market functions very poorly, with rampant cheating and local monopolies.

The rule of law doesn't imply a well functioning market: the Soviet Union had as much of the rule of law as present day Russia, but with a command economy. But the rule of law, and independent judges, are a necessary condition for a well functioning market economy.

As to why the young don't rob the poor, well altruism is one answer. (How else could human beings be tribal animals otherwise?) The other is, of course, that the young themselves expect to be old one day.

Raedwald said...

DJK - perhaps I went too quickly.

In a truly free market economy, nothing would be provided by the State to citizens - and citizens would not be taxed to provide common goods. In fact, in a truly free market economy, there would be no citizens, only economic actors. And of course, no State. It would be up to every person, alone or in co-operation with others, to fund their own common services. Indeed, this is the ethos of the far-right refuseniks in the US, who do not recognise the State.

The phrase 'the rule of law' is utterly vacuous, I'm afraid. Specious.

Law doesn't rule - people do - and in a democracy, those people are voters. People make laws. And in all free human societies, people choose to make laws to govern collective arrangements for defence, for arbitration, for regulation. Collective services funded by taxation.

The idea of a free market without a social democratic State to support it - to a greater or lesser degree - is a nonsense.

Span Ows said...

You are describing anarcho-capitalism. The 'good' anarchy.

Minarchism would be better...

DJK said...

Have to respectfully disagree.

Firstly "the rule of law" is hardly vacuous, it is a phrase with a well established meaning, at least in England, and then Great Britain.

It means that a common, agreed set of laws are enforced impartially, by a state that is more powerful than any one individual, even the most powerful of all.

It is easily observed that markets work best when there is a functioning, impartial legal system standing behind contracts. If everyone knows that the law is there as a last resort then people will begin to trust each other and markets (free exchange) will work their magic.

If there is no law, then there might be individual exchanges, with a high degree of mutual suspicion, but there can hardly be said to be a market.

DJK said...

Clearly, for a state and a legal system to exist, there must be taxes and a degree of consent. That hardly detracts from anyone's freedom.

Raedwald said...

You rather prove my point - law doesn't rule, people do. Law doesn't exist independently of lawmakers, neither does a legal system exist independently of a State.

It's not some neutral external force that just came into being to facilitate the operation of markets. It was made by people, and can be changed by people.

And laws are only 'agreed' in a democracy - otherwise they are diktats that are imposed. So as I stated orginally, free markets can only exist in a democracy and are subject to democratic governance - which means common goods and collectivism, to a greater or lesser extent.

Dave_G said...

I fail to see the 'freedom' you suggest where the so-called consent for taxation is applied by force and punitive sentencing for disobedience i.e. refusal to pay.

With taxation must come representation and this particular link has been broken for decades. Is it any wonder that the free market is also abused in the same way our taxes are?

Span Ows said...

How many weeks into crisis? And one week into lockdown:

"Inweek 122020in England, no statistically significant excess mortality by week of death above the upper 2 z-score threshold was seen overall, byage group or sub nationally(all ages)..."

Span Ows said...

Oh and Raedwald, I missed this from a day or two ago:

Anonymous said...

Don;t forget the Brexinet model where Brexi-ministers say one thing about Coronavirus testing, respirator capacity, hospital capacity, antibody tests etc. and front line NHS staff (and patients) report reality.

Just like those much promised advanced technologies for max-facilitation borders.

Double portions of unicorn steaks for all citizens!